Trump and Biden prepare to face off in final debate

With mics muted for part of the time, there's a chance this debate won't have the raucous tenor of last month's matchup.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

The first of three planned debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was a spectacle.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are gearing up for their final debate before the Nov. 3 election on Thursday night at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. This debate should be a bit more tame than the previous one thanks to a rule change that will allow microphones to be cut off during portions of the debate.

The Commission on Presidential Debates said Monday it will mute the microphones of Trump and Biden as the other gives two-minute opening statements at the beginning of each of six topics during the debate.

Microphones of both candidates will be turned on during the "open discussion" portion of the 90-minute debate, the commission said. Kristen Welker of NBC News, who is moderating the debate, will return any time that's taken up with interruptions to the other candidate. But Welker won't be able to cut off the microphone during the open discussion if the two candidates talk over one another. 

"During the times dedicated for open discussion, it is the hope of the commission that the candidates will be respectful of each other's time, which will advance civil discourse for the benefit of the viewing public," the commission said in a statement.

The news comes after a chaotic first debate on Sept. 29 in Cleveland in which Trump repeatedly interrupted and talked over Biden and argued with moderator and Fox News journalist Chris Wallace. Immediately following that debate, the commission announced it would be adding "additional tools to maintain order" for future debates. The commission finalized changes on Monday. 

The Trump campaign confirmed that it will take part in the debate following the changes. But Trump told reporters Tuesday that he wasn't happy with the change. 

"I'll participate. I just think it's very unfair," Trump said.

Trump's campaign has also taken issue with topics that will be covered as part of the debate. In a letter to the commission, Bill Stepien, Trump's campaign manager, said the campaign had hoped there would be a focus on foreign policy. Instead, the topics selected by the moderator will be fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.

Thursday's debate is the last major opportunity for Trump, who is trailing in polls in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, to appeal to undecided voters and to make the case for why he should be elected for four more years. The second debate scheduled for Oct. 15 didn't happen after the commission changed it to a virtual one with both candidates appearing from different locations. The decision came after Trump returned to the White House following treatment for the coronavirus at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

But Trump said on Fox News shortly after the CPD announcement that he wouldn't participate in the debate. Instead, Trump and Biden participated in dueling town hall events broadcast by NBC and ABC, respectively. 

Trump tested positive for COVID-19 two days after the first debate, prompting the commission to install plexiglass to separate Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris at their Oct. 7 vice presidential debate. There are no plans for plexiglass at Thursday's debate.

In keeping with the unpredictable and unprecedented year we've had, a lot could still happen before the next presidential debate.

Here's a look at what might still happen. 

Watch this: What if nasal swabs only show us part of the picture of COVID-19?

The debate could still be canceled

Even though Trump appears to have recovered from the virus, he has yet to announce that he has tested negative for COVID-19. Trump said Monday that he would get tested before the next debate.

But if he doesn't get tested or if the test comes back positive, the debate could still be canceled. Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos at a town hall last week that he wouldn't take the debate stage with Trump unless the president tested negative for COVID-19. 

There's also a chance that Trump could still cancel his appearance at the debate. On Tuesday, he told reporters traveling with him on Air Force One that he thought it was "unfair" that the moderator was "totally biased."  While there's no indication he will not follow through on plans to attend the debate, Trump could still cancel his appearance via tweet at any time. 

Representatives of the Biden and Trump campaigns weren't available to comment for this article. 

The debate could be postponed

If Trump refuses to get tested or if the test is still positive, there's a the tiniest of chances the debate could be postponed. But with less than two weeks before the Nov. 3 election, it seems unlikely that the candidates would reschedule. 

The debate could go virtual

There's probably even less of a chance that this would happen, given that Trump balked at a virtual second debate. The second debate, which was to be held in Miami, was supposed to be a town hall style event where audience members were to ask questions of each candidate. According to the plan, Trump and Biden would have been in different locations answering the debate questions. But Trump rejected the idea, calling it "ridiculous." And then he accused the commission, without any evidence, of trying to help Biden's campaign.

"I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate, that's not what debating is all about," Trump said during an interview with Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo. "You sit behind a computer and do a debate -- it's ridiculous."

The debate could go on as planned

So far both candidates seem to be on track to show up at Thursday's debate. Trump was out on the campaign trail Tuesday hosting big rallies. Meanwhile, Biden is spending the days before the debate preparing at his home in Wilmington, Deleware.

After weeks of negotiation, campaigns for the two candidates have agreed to the new rules. But of course, that could change in the next 48 hours. 

So stay tuned.